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Power at the Ports: Truckers Force Showdowns in Seattle, Los Angeles

A group of port workers in Los Angeles has filed for a rare union election, and another just ended a two-week strike that brought the Port of Seattle to a near standstill.

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And, like an increasing number of American workers, these “independent contractors” aren’t considered employees under the National Labor Relations Act. That means that while workers can organize and act as a union, the law doesn’t require their bosses to recognize or collectively bargain with them.

“The more underwater we are,” the drivers wrote, “the more our restlessness grows.”

Seattle Workers’ Strike Forces Port Slowdown

That restlessness has been on full display this month, as hundreds of port truck drivers struck for two weeks, leaving the Port of Seattle in disarray. Instead of hauling cargo, drivers showed up at Washington’s state capitol, where legislators were debating two pro-labor bills: one to crack down on truckers’ classification as independent contractors, and another to shift the costs of trucking safety violations back to the companies that hire them. They stayed out for over two weeks. Many resumed trucking on Wednesday; others are still not returning to work.

A January 30 confrontation between Meconnen and management helped instigate the strike. He and a group of co-workers called out of work that Monday to attend a hearing on the misclassification bill. His boss turned out to be at the state capital as well, testifying against the reforms and citing wage statistics Meconnen says were nothing like his actual pay. When he returned to work on Tuesday, Meconnen says management asked him why he hadn’t worked the previous day, and then, when he answered honestly, retaliated against him by giving him a different work assignment.

“They knew I did not have the right equipment” to do that assignment safely, says Meconnen, and “they said, ‘Go do this.’” When he refused, citing safety concerns, he was told not to work for the rest of the week. Meconnen is filing complaints against his employer, Western Ports, for violating state and federal whistleblower protections. (Management denies this account.)

“Within 30 minutes,” says Meconnen, “at least 20 of my fellow drivers…all decided that they would all come out.” Over a few days, their numbers grew from dozens to hundreds. The Seattle Times reported that “Last week, they were largely successful in shutting down the movement of freight.”

Since driving off the job, workers have been a daily presence at the state capital. Last week the Washington State House passed the misclassification bill, which now heads to the Senate. Change to Win’s TJ Michels credits that victory to the drivers’ action. While “misclassification clearly has fueled unrest at the ports for decades now,” she says, it was due to the strike that “lawmakers in Olympia got a first-hand look.”

Last week, a rally outside a small business founded by country-western singer Bob Edgmon won unpaid back wages from Edgmon Trucking for 24 drivers. Workers gathered at a Teamsters union hall Saturday to discuss truckers’ working conditions with Seattle’s Port Commissioner and a city council member. Hundreds of workers and supporters rallied on Monday. This week they recorded a video message to US Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, asking her to visit Seattle and see the abuses imposed by bosses on so-called “independent contractors.”

Wednesday, drivers announced that most workers were returning to work. Meconnen says that decision was made for two reasons: The difficulty of continuing to go without pay, and the achievement of significant concessions from many of the companies drivers work for. Among those victories: pay will increase; management will cover more of the costs of insuring trucks; drivers will be paid for time they spend waiting, in excess of one hour, in line to go through tolls.

Workers who engage in collective action against their boss are always taking a risk, despite the legal protections for such actions on paper. But their status as “independent contractors” makes these drivers’ action that much more risky. What they had to protect them was not the law, but each other; the hope that involving enough people, and drawing enough attention and sympathy, would make it practically or politically unwieldy for management to sack them.

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